Donbass refugees celebrate third Hanukka in Kiev
Members of scattered Jewish community remain strongly connected despite distance between them.
KIEV – Dozens of Jewish refugees from the war in Donbass celebrated the second night of Hanukka on Sunday evening at a festive event in Kiev hosted by Chabad and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).
This was the third year that a portion of the once-large and thriving Jewish community of Donbass celebrated the festival of lights in the Ukrainian capital, to which many refugees fled following the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in early 2014.
They do not have such a facility in Kiev. So on Sunday they rented a hall at the Khreschatyk Hotel for the event that included candle-lighting, a musical performance, food and speeches of hope for a bright new year.
Vishedski transferred to Kiev in September 2014 and since then has worked to support and rebuild the fractured community with the support of IFCJ founder and president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
Together, they work to help those who want to make aliya (emigrate to Israel), as well as support those who moved to other parts of Ukraine, where many are struggling in the face of harsh economic circumstances.
“This marks two years since the launch of our aliya project,” Vishedski said. He noted that while they encourage aliya, as they see Israel as a good place for refugees to start new lives, they are also there for those who wish to pick up the pieces of their lives in Ukraine.
“The Donesk Jewish community was one of biggest, most active and successful ones in Ukraine, and when it was destroyed, it was an awful heartbreak,” Vishedski told The Jerusalem Post, referring to the Donbass capital. He emphasized the importance of preserving that community even after it has been physically disbanded.
After the war broke out, IFCJ and Chabad opened a refugee center in western Ukraine to aid those who had been displaced in their absorption around the country. With the financial backing of the IFCJ, the center helped the refugees acclimatize, helping them with rent, food and clothes.
“The economic situation here is very difficult, so Ukraine does not have the capability to absorb the refugees,” Vishedski said. Many refugees still receive financial aid of this type today, he said.
Vishedski repeatedly praised Eckstein and described him as an “angel” to Jewish refugees in Ukraine. “In the name of thousands from Donbass, we don’t have the words to say thank you to him,” he said.
“We are eternally grateful to him.”
Addressing the gathering, community member Shaul Melamed said: “It is a miracle we can gather here for the third year, and I’m happy this community is growing not only from Ukraine, but also from Russia and Belarus.”
Melamed moved with his family from Donetsk to Kiev at the outbreak of the war. They live with the hope of one day being able to return to their hometown. Melamed is a programmer who, in contrast with others, has managed to continue providing a stable life for his family. “We haven’t been hurt so much,” he said. “We live a normal life, only that instead of living our own apartment, we now live in a rented one.”
Although the community has been divided, Melamed feels its spirit has survived.
“We found within us strength we did not know we had, both individually and as a community,” he said.
Yaakov Potichanov still lives in Donesk, where his mother and his business remain. He divides his time between his home and Kiev, where he is trying to build up his business.
While his 22-year-old son moved to Israel well before the war broke out, Potichanov doesn’t seem himself following in the near future.
“Life in Donetsk goes on, especially Jewish life,” he said, noting the active community surrounding the synagogue.
However, the war critically damaged his business and a curfew is in place every night at 11:00. In the center of Donetsk, though, he does not feel unsafe, as hostilities are concentrated mainly on the outskirts of the city.
As a Jew, he said, he feels safer in Donetsk than in Kiev. While he walks comfortably wearing a kippa in the streets of the former, he has experienced antisemitic verbal abuse in the latter. “It’s not serious, but it makes me feel uncomfortable and it does exist,” he said.
Jewish Ukrainian MP Evgeni Geller is also originally from Donetsk and remains an active member and supporter of the Donbass Jewish community in Kiev.
“There were complications. It wasn’t easy to move here,” he said. But thanks to Vishedski, “they continued doing what they were doing.”
140 Ukrainian olim arrived at Ben Gurion Airport Tuesday morning, on a plane chartered by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), as part of its ‘Freedom Flight’ program.
The program began in December 2014, soon after the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with monthly aliya flights to rescue Jewish refugees from the war-torn Donbass region. IFCJ, however, swiftly expanded its aliya operation to include Jews from secure areas of Ukraine, as well as to many other countries around the world. The program provides the olim with guidance before and after aliya, in addition to financial and social support to help them integrate into their new country.
Liubov and Alexey Jashta, are one such couple. They are from an area of Donetsk battered by violence since the outbreak of the War in Donbass, and have subsequently been driven out of their country. They told The Jerusalem Post hours before their aliya-- as they took part in a preparatory IFCJ seminar about life in Israel-- that they did not feel safe in their home. In addition, the war hit their economic security, both of them lost their jobs at a local factory, along with many of their colleagues. The Jashtas received aid from a charitable organization called Chesed, which provided them with medicine and food at a time when the shelves in the stores were empty.
Liubov is an engineer and Alexey a technician; both are aged 63 and are eager to pick up their careers again in Israel. Why Israel and not another part of Ukraine? “We don’t any prospects in other areas of Ukraine. Nobody is waiting for us there,” the couple answers.
In big cities, such as Kiev, the cost of living is expensive and it’s hard to find a place to live, while it’s difficult to find work in the small cities. Moreover, the couple laments that refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk do not receive a warm welcome in other areas of Ukraine, they are often held responsible for the 2014 referendums held by the separatist republics, in which the majority voted in favor of independence from Ukraine. The Jashtas say that negative preconceptions about residents of the Donbass area have since increased and have also been propagated by the media.
The pair are both excited and nervous about their new lives in Afula, in northern Israel. Though they note that a life change of this kind is not easy at their age, they are hopeful that Israel will be good to them.
For Yevhen Lampakov, 42, Israel is the final destination of a journey of rediscovery. The Kiev native has dreamed of moving to Israel since the age of 22, when he learned about Israel’s Law of Return, which allows for anyone with a Jewish grandparent to immigrate to Israel.Lampakov’s grandfather was Jewish, however, his mother hid her Jewish origins --as many Jewish Ukrainians did -- with memories of the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews casting a dark shadow their identity. Lampakov’s mother objected to her son’s ideas of moving to Israel, afraid of the country’s security situation. He dutifully laid his dreams on the side and remained in Ukraine.
When his mother passed away of cancer in 2013, the thought of aliya resurfaced in his mind. His mother had told him that the original documents proving her father’s Jewish identity had been destroyed, but while clearing out his mother’s apartment, he stumbled across the original copy of her birth certificate, which literally fell on him as he opened the door of one of her cupboards.
Thus the preparations for his and his wife Valentina’s aliya began. Lampakov has been taking Hebrew classes in Kiev, which proved to be a source of strengthening to the connection he already felt to Judaism and Israel. He told the Post that he found himself relating to many of the stories his teacher told of her life in Israel, and strongly identified with her attitude toward life. The Lampakovs will settle in Rishon Letzion, where they hope to start a family.
Meanwhile in the Mykhailo family, Nadia and Yuriy followed their son to Israel. 17-year-old Plakida’s desire to move to Israel began with a girl he met at Jewish Agency summer camp in Ukraine at the tender age of 14.
The girl told him she was making aliya and he wanted to go with her. "At first I only thought about the girl," he confesses three years later, "but then I understood that it was a good opportunity for life in general." He made good on his word and from age 14-17 went to highschool in Israel as part of the Naaleh program
Mykhalo connects more with the Israeli people and the mentality of the country than he does with Ukraine. He says that while in Ukraine he finds the culture to be individualistic, in Israel he feels that the people are united.
His supportive parents Nadia and Yuri, are now joining him in Israel, and making their home in Haifa.